Red Panda Facts: Behavior, Habitat, Diet

This small mammal is more related to a raccoon than a giant panda

The red panda is more closely related to raccoons than to giant pandas.
The red panda is more closely related to raccoons than to giant pandas. aaronchengtp photography / Getty Images

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a furry mammal with a lush red coat, a bushy tail, and a masked face. Although both the red panda and the giant panda live in China and eat bamboo, they are not close relatives. The giant panda is more closely related to a bear, while the red panda's next of kin is a raccoon or skunk. Scientists have long debated the red panda's classification; currently, the creature is the only member of the family Ailuridae.

Fast Facts: Red Panda

  • Common Name: Red Panda
  • Scientific Name: Ailurus fulgens
  • Distinguishing Features: The red panda is a cat-sized animal with reddish-brown fur, masked face, and waddling gait.
  • Size: 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 in) body with a 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 in) tail, with a mass of 3 to 6.2 kg (6.6 to 13.7 lb). Males are larger than females.
  • Diet: Omnivorous, mostly eating bamboo, supplemented with other plants, eggs, and small mammals.
  • Average Lifespan: 8 to 10 years
  • Habitat: Southwestern China and the Eastern Himalayas
  • Conservation Status: Endangered
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Ailuridae
  • Fun Fact: The Mozilla web browser Firefox got its name from the nickname for the red panda: "fire fox". Mozilla adopted two red pandas at the Knoxville Zoo and streamed their antics to raise awareness of red panda conservation.

How to Recognize a Red Panda

A red panda is about as big as a domestic cat. Its body ranges from 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 in) and its tail is 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 in). Males are slightly heavier than females, with the average adult panda weighing 3.0 to 6.2 kg (6.6 to 13.7 lb).

A red panda has reddish fur, a masked face, and a banded tail.
A red panda has reddish fur, a masked face, and a banded tail. Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images

The red panda's back features soft, reddish-brown fur. Its belly and legs are dark brown or black. The panda's face has distinctive white markings, somewhat similar to those of a raccoon. The bushy tail has six rings, which serve as camouflage against trees. Thick fur covers the animal's paws, protecting them from the cold of snow and ice.

A red panda's body is adapted for feeding on bamboo. Its front legs are shorter than its hind legs, giving it a waddling walk. Its curved claws are semi-retractable. Like the giant panda, the red panda has a false thumb extending from its wrist bone that aids in climbing. The red panda is one of only a few species able to rotate its ankles to control a head-first descent from a tree.

Behavior

A red panda standing on its hind legs and extending its claws may look cute, but it's actually a threat behavior.
A red panda standing on its hind legs and extending its claws may look cute, but it's actually a threat behavior. DigiPub / Getty Images

Red pandas are territorial and solitary except during the mating season. They are crepuscular and nocturnal, spending the day sleeping in trees and using the night to mark territory with urine and musk and to seek food. They clean themselves, much like cats, and communicate using twittering sounds and whistles.

Pandas are only comfortable at temperatures ranging from 17 to 25 °C (63 to 77 °F). When cold, the red panda curls its tail over its face to conserve heat. When hot, it stretches on a branch and dangles its legs to cool off.

Red pandas are preyed upon by snow leopards, mustelids, and humans. When threatened, a red panda will try to escape by running up a rock or tree. If cornered, it will stand on its hind legs and extend its claws to appear larger and threatening.

Habitat

Red Panda Global Distribution
Red Panda Global Distribution. IUCN

Red panda fossils have been found as far away as North America, but today the animal is only found in the temperate forests of southwestern China and the eastern Himalayas. Groups are geographically separated from each other and fall into two subspecies. The western red panda (A. f. fulgens) lives in the western portion of the range, while Styan's red panda (A. f. styani) lives in the eastern part. Styan's red panda tends to be larger and darker than the western red panda, but the panda's appearance is highly variable even within a subspecies.

Diet

The red panda is adapted to spend its waking hours eating bamboo.
The red panda is adapted to spend its waking hours eating bamboo. retales botijero / Getty Images

Bamboo is the staple of a red panda's diet. Like the giant panda, the red panda can't digest the cellulose in bamboo, so it has to eat a huge amount of bamboo shoots (4.8 kg or 8.8 lb) and leaves (1.5 kg or 3.3 lb) each day to survive. In other words, a red panda eats its weight in bamboo every day! About two-thirds of a red panda's diet consist of bamboo leaves and shoots. The other third includes leaves, berries, mushrooms, flowers, and sometimes fish and insects. Due to its low caloric intake, nearly every waking hour of a panda's life is spent eating.

One interesting fact about the red panda is that it is the only non-primate known to taste artificial sweeteners. Scientists speculate the ability helps the animal identify a natural compound in food with a similar chemical structure, influencing its diet.

Reproduction

Red pandas become sexually mature at 18 months of age and fully mature at age two or three years. The mating seasons runs from January to March, during which mature pandas may mate with multiple partners. Gestation lasts from 112 to 158 days. Females gather grass and leaves to build a nest a few days before giving birth to one to four deaf and blind cubs. Initially, the mother spends all of her time with the cubs, but after a week she starts venturing out to feed. The cubs open their eyes around 18 days of age and are weaned around six to eight months of age. They remain with their mother until the next litter is born. Males only help raise young if the pandas live in very small groups. On average, a red panda lives between eight and 10 years.

Conservation

The IUCN has classified the red panda as endangered since 2008. Worldwide population estimates range from 2500 to 20,000 individuals. The estimate is a "best guess" because pandas are difficult to spot and count in the wild. The species' population has declined about 50 percent over the last three generations and is expected to continue to fall at an accelerated rate. The red panda faces multiple threats, including deforestation of bamboo, increased death from canine distemper due to human encroachment, habitat loss, and poaching for the pet and fur trades. Over half of red panda deaths are directly related to human activity.

Captive breeding programs at several zoos are helping protect the red panda's genetic diversity and raise awareness of the animal. The Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands manages the red panda international studbook. In the United States, the Knoxville Zoo in Knoxville, Tennessee, holds the record for the largest number of red panda births in North America.

Can You Keep a Red Panda as a Pet?

Although the red panda is cute and cuddly-looking and breeds well in captivity, there are several reasons it's not a common pet. A red panda needs a massive amount of fresh bamboo each day. It requires a large enclosure, canine distemper vaccination, and flea treatment (infestation can be lethal). Red pandas use anal glands to mark territory, producing a strong smell. Pandas are nocturnal in captivity, so they don't interact much with people. Even hand-raised red pandas have been known to get aggressive toward their keepers.

Former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi kept red pandas in a special enclosure. They had been presented to her family as a gift. Today, obtaining a pet red panda is inadvisable (and often illegal), but you can aid conservation efforts in zoos and in the wild by "adopting" a panda from the WWF or Red Panda Network.

Sources

  • Glatston, A.; Wei, F.; Than Zaw & Sherpa, A. (2015). "Ailurus fulgens". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T714A45195924.en
  • Glatston, A. R. (2010). Red Panda: Biology and Conservation of the First Panda. William Andrew. ISBN 978-1-4377-7813-7.
  • Glover, A. M. (1938). The Mammals of China and Mongolia. New York: American Museum of Natural History. pp. 314–317.
  • Nowak, R. M. (1999). Walker’s Mammals of the World. 2 (sixth ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 695–696. ISBN 0-8018-5789-9.